Planetary Radio • Sep 11, 2019

The Unexpected Space Center: Los Alamos National Laboratory

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20190911 alan carr

Alan Carr

Historian for Los Alamos National Laboratory

20190911 ed fenimore

Ed Fenimore

Astrophysicist (Retired) for Los Alamos National Laboratory

Bruce betts portrait hq library

Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

Jason headshot sept 2020

Jason Davis

Senior Editor for The Planetary Society

Kaplan mat headshot 0114a print

Mat Kaplan

Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society

This US research center has been part of more than 200 space missions, but it’s not a NASA facility! The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico gave the Voyager spacecraft their power sources, is building nuclear generators for future Martians, and accidentally invented the field of High Energy Astrophysics. That’s just some of what we’ll learn from Lab historian Alan Carr and longtime Lab astrophysicist Ed Fenimore. The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis has the latest news about India’s lunar lander, while Bruce Betts and Mat Kaplan go where no acronym has gone before.

Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory Aerial view of Los Alamos National Laboratory.Image: Los Alamos National Laboratory
Gamma Ray Bursts
Gamma Ray Bursts This infographic outlines the history of the scientific study of gamma-ray bursts from their discovery in 1963 to 2015.Image: Los Alamos National Laboratory

This week's challenge:

Create and share with us your “third-order” acronym that is related to space. A third-order acronym is an acronym containing an acronym that contains an acronym. Your acronym can be deadly serious or make us laugh!

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, September 18th at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

Name the last three Venus orbiters.


The answer will be revealed next week.

Question from the August 28 space trivia contest:

What does the acronym SAFER stand for in regard to astronaut-related equipment on the International Space Station?


The NASA (second-order) acronym SAFER stands for Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue.


NOTE: This automated transcript is currently being edited by a human. Check back soon for updates.

[00:00:00] Exciting space exploration from a surprising Source this week on planetary radio. Welcome. I'm at Kaplan of the planetary Society with more of the Human Adventure across our solar system and beyond the Los Alamos National Laboratory may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about space yet this Center for nuclear research and development.

And she had a hand in more than 200 missions join me for an eye-opening conversation with two longtime members of its staff. I'm looking forward to telling planetary Society Chief scientist Bruce Betts that I finally got a good look at Jupiter. That'll happen in this week's. What's up? Along with all the other usual hijinks.

We begin with last week's attempt by India to become only the fourth Nation to soft Lander spacecraft on the moon. Jason Davis is the planetary societies digital editor [00:01:00] Jason. Welcome as always. Thank you for the updates on the Chandra and to Mission your last one on our website as we speak anyway on September 6th, and there has been at least one development since then that the Rover.

May have been found. Yeah deep Indian space agency's Chandra and two orbiters. So just as a quick recap both spacecraft launched from Earth as one combined unit and then separated in lunar orbit the Lander carrying the Rover one on down to the surface and the Orbiter is still going strong about a hundred kilometers above the surface.

Anyway that Orbiter has all kinds of different scientific instruments on including a good Imaging system and they have seen. Least it's a little unclear whether what kind of image it was whether it was an infrared image or a visible light image, but they have seen or spotted the Lander on the surface.

Haven't said much about what kind of shape it's in. [00:02:00] Is it in one piece or what exactly happened to it? They are trying to contact it and listening for it from Earth, but so far no Communications with that. Better well, we wish them luck. Of course in those attempts to contact it, but that the similarities with what we sought not long ago at all with the The bereshit Landing attempt or pretty striking aren't they boy?

It sure was watching the real-time coverage of the mission. Everything was going great right down to the last minute and then suddenly the Telemetry admission control did not update it kind of froze. So it was it looks like it was just like a kilometer or two above the surface coming in for its.

And then all the screens froze and you can just sense the atmosphere in the room change, you know, what happened with bereshit people staring at computer screens with very concerned looks on their faces and you think well, you know, maybe there's nothing you know, maybe there's just a little Communications Dropout or a glitch or they just haven't received confirmation, [00:03:00] but then the seconds keep dragging on and you don't hear anything until finally it becomes clear after several minutes that something is not right here.

And yeah it just. It just really was a lot like Barry sheet and just heartbreaking to watch it really was there were several of us watching at planetary Society headquarters, including the boss Bill Nye and and you know, we shared in there the Desolation I think that's fair to say that say that you could see in their faces and their of course also was Modi the Indian Prime Minister just as the prime minister of Israel Netanyahu.

At the been there for the bereshit landing. Yeah in both cases, you know, you have that moment where it's like the big boss is sitting up that you know behind the glass screens watching everything and you know, finally someone from the flight team has to come up and kind of give them an update on what's going on.

And so we saw that happen with. Case [00:04:00] even he's the head of this row came up and gave an update. There were also some really touching moments online. Somebody shot a scene where he was Modi was leaving the building and Sivan was walking out with them and just kind of broke down and they hugged each other.

I mean, it just really shows you how much emotion emotional Capital gets poured into these missions the heart and soul of these things and you know, we kind of take it for granted with NASA. They've had so many planetary success. Lately, but you know not long ago. This is what NASA scientists were dealing with and still could deal with so it really is one of those exercises where you see the human side of space exploration.

And how I sadly everybody gets to deal with this stuff now and then space is hard Landing is harder as I've said before before we go over on a different Side of the Moon China still successfully exploring and there has been this report. I did no idea about this [00:05:00] until somebody friend of mine happened to mention to me a couple of days ago asked if I knew anything about this quote gel-like substance unquote that have been found by the.

To Rover from China are part of the challenge you for Mission and this was news to you too. Wasn't it? Yeah. Yeah. Thanks for thanks for bringing this to me be apparently as you said the Rover spotted this mysterious. Quote this is translated from Chinese. But the quote was a gel with a mysterious luster in the center of the crater.

It was exploring and this was you know, the little you to Rover and so they're not quite sure what this substance is, you know, the word gel was pretty loaded there. So we're not sure whether that was something Lost in Translation or whether this is some truly exotic substance or it's just.

Run-of-the-mill scientific curiosity, I guess some but yeah over there the you know the mission as far as we know is still going [00:06:00] on doing it science as we speak still no pictures of this mysterious substance, although there has been a lot of speculation that maybe it's just glass you had like volcanic glass that was formed now, maybe after, you know, a meteorite meteor hit which does tend to heat things up quite a bit.

Anyway, we'll just have to wait for China to release more information. And good evidence that there's much to discover and do on the moon still. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely and it's and I think it's important to know to with children to you know, as sad as we are about the Lander India still has a healthy Orbiter up there and it's going to do some good science for the next year including looking for ice and water at the lunar poles and some of these permanently shadowed craters.

So, you know still a lot of cool science going on up at the moon and more to come. So congratulations to ISRO the Indian Space Agency for that and and to all of India more to come. I'm sure and more to come from you Jason. Thanks very much for all this spent always good to [00:07:00] be here. Take a look at planetary dot-org if you want to check out Jason's report the most recent as we speak.

As I said is a September 6 report and from there. You can link to the our mission page about the chandran to about that entire Mission. We have lots and lots of these Mission Pages which will give you a good start on learning about things that are happening all over our solar system from robotic spacecraft.

Less than an hour Northwest of beautiful Santa Fe New Mexico is one of the most storied scientific and Technology Centers on Earth. The Los Alamos National Laboratory was founded in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project the massive top secret effort to create the atom bomb. Its Mission still includes work on nuclear weapons, but the lab has also gone in many other directions over the decades several representatives of.

Lab came to the Santa Fe institute's [00:08:00] interplanetary Festival last June. That's where I hosted spacesuit author Nicolas de machaut for the fascinating conversation. You may have heard in our August 14th episode that were many more surprises in store. When I sat down with two of the visitors from Los Alamos.

My name is Alan Carr. I'm a historian at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have been there for a little over 16 years. Now most people that I get to meet around the laboratory and. Don't think that I have the best job there. And I don't know if I could disagree with them, huh? So and disagrees.

Yes. Okay, we've got a challenger introduce yourself. Okay, my name is Ed Fenimore been an astrophysicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for 45 years. I sort of retired a while ago, but that was just so I could come back and work for free. Actually, let me come back and work on the free.

Okay, so obviously I have the best job there at the laboratory. I suppose I guess you'd given you could be killed a run for your money. But since I'm a [00:09:00] non-scientist, I'm it's you that I'm most envious Earth. We just left the stage here at the interplanetary festival in Santa Fe. And so I feel very fortunate to be able to catch the two of.

And very sorry that your two excellent compared treats your colleagues actually three colleagues. Yes. Yes, we're not able to join us for purely technical reasons because I've only got two microphones for you guys. So you're going to have to cover for them as well. I'm afraid sure they'll be with us in spirit.

I'm sure I'm sure Alan the first thing that comes to mind is Los Alamos National Laboratory. Not a NASA lab. It's not a NASA center. It's a national lab right and yet I learned here that you've had a tremendous amount of involvement with space exploration space science. That's right. At the laboratory we make technology to enable policymakers to give them options.

And so when there's a great National crisis or need for something [00:10:00] Washington turns to the National Laboratories. That's how we started in World War Two. We thought that the Germans were going to develop nuclear weapons you could imagine a world in which adults Hitler has a nuclear Monopoly well, Where we going to turn to do that and that's kind of the creation of the National Laboratory system starting with with Los Alamos.

And of course, there are many other sites in the Manhattan Project as well. We were a nuclear weapons laboratory early on then we evolved into a nuclear science laboratory because the needs of the nation changed and they changed again in the 70s and in the 70s, we became a multidisciplinary laboratory.

We do science in just about every Major Field that you can think of again because the nation has a problem technological problem. They turn to us to try. Salt them and again, not just those Alibis but many other Laboratories as well. And so yes space there was a space race going on in the Cold War and we were already doing work on nuclear rockets at the time Sputnik was launched in late 1957 and our nuclear rocket technology was adopted to explore the solar system and I'm [00:11:00] going to come back to those nucleus gets me in a few minutes anyway, because that.

A fascinating topic that has started to arise again. Yes. Typically there's some mission that we're doing and then we need the background signs to do that. But that often means we need to connect to the whole scientific community of the whole world. So we don't just do the mission. We do all the associated science associated with it to make sure we're right on top of every topic, you know a few years ago.

We celebrated our 50th year in space and we counted up something like 230 launches that we've been involved in. That's a huge number. I'm sure it's much more than JPL but because they do different types of missions. Yeah, probably isn't the top two or three in the whole world. And here we are in New Mexico doing that but a lot of it is to keep a sharp.

We're doing a mission. So we do a lot of other missions and we see if that technology can be used for the missions that we're here for and a lot of that's non-proliferation to stop stop the spread of nuclear weapons, right? [00:12:00] I would say half the Laboratories working on nuclear weapons. The other half is working to stop them.

What an interesting balance one would hope anyway Alan you alluded to this but. Labs involvement with space you said really predates NASA? Yes by few months. At least. We had a nuclear rocket program that started in 1955 originally envisioned as a delivery system for really big heavy. Thermonuclear weapons looking back not really a good idea for that purpose and thermonuclear weapons.

Smaller very quickly so that you can oh, that's right. And so you could use conventional chemicals things like that to deliver them instead. And so just as the nuclear rocket program was about to go away the Soviets put Sputnik in space. We're in the Space Race. We've got to have a response and is NASA was being formed legislatively.

Our program was being repurposed to explore the solar system and it wasn't long after that. That [00:13:00] apparently the lab was look to its that preventing nuclear weaponry and making sure we know about what's going on elsewhere around the world that that you talked about a good deal at it. And because Los Alamos was look to to help us discover.

If any of these were going off either on Earth or in space more importantly, right, we had a treaty and within 10 days of signing that treaty we launched our first satellites the Vela satellites to make sure nobody was setting off nuclear weapons in space and nuclear weapons, you know, they produce very short bursts of X-rays and gamma rays should be pretty easy to find because you can put an x-ray and gamma ray detector up there and at the time since we thought that stars don't.

Probably don't even make X-rays and gamma-rays much less Stars don't turn on and turn off in a second. So this had to be a really sure way with absolutely no fault events at all because Who Would Imagine who could imagine that there would be Stars up there that could [00:14:00] turn on and off in a second and yet and yet yes after a few years.

They actually looked at the data to show that there is nothing up there and they discovered that about once a month. Something up there was bursting ever make a burst of lasting couple seconds some more burst, maybe 10 seconds later couple more bursts, then turn off and never come back again, and it actually took us.

25 years to figure out what they were and that involved a lot of our missions in space because we had to spread satellites over through the whole solar system and an attempt to triangulate to figure out where they're coming from. So it was a huge effort to try to explain these really unexpected everybody thought Stars.

We'll just sort of steady it go a little bit further in describing these little peaks in the data that you saw for what both X-rays and gamma rays. Yes, and mostly with the gamma rays. These weren't little Peaks. These were huge later on we [00:15:00] found some that are so huge that the number of X rays hitting the Earth's atmosphere actually jars the atmosphere and and some of them.

Vastly big I once had a slide where I showed your here's the biggest reaction you expected to see on one of our satellites. I couldn't show how big we actually saw one because it go up a quarter of a mile. Wow my God and so the idea that stars somehow were able to do this. That's one of the reason why I took so long to figure out what they were, but we did as you explained a few minutes ago on stage.

How did we figure out what these are and what were they where were they coming? Right? Well, the key question is actually where they were coming from. If you needed a good location, you could then take the Hubble Space Telescope go there and look and see what it is. So we built large number of satellites in the whole solar system to triangulate we develop new techniques of Imaging camera Imaging so we can on one satellite locate them.

We built all around the world, but [00:16:00] particularly here at Los Alamos, we built automatic telescopes. It could look at the sky and catch these flashes of light. And then finally we got some coincidence we able to find them at the seam on our Satellites with the x-rays get a telescope within a few seconds to.

Over there look and we finally found a very good location. And where was it? Yeah. Well we figured these things are really bright. It's got to be, you know some star and so we went to look to see what star was and there was no stars. They're all over with a faraway galaxies and then we go. Oh we're in trouble.

Because we can figure out how a nearby star could produce this many X-rays and now we got to produce them from across the entire universe and this was the discovery of gamma-ray bursts grbs zero degree, which if they had if the raw if it points your way could ruin your day. Yes, if you're close by.

Yes within your same galaxy, yes, but unfortunately these were discovered to [00:17:00] be in other galaxies. Extremely far away. These are the one time the ones we saw with one of our satellites. It's the farthest object ever seen. Yeah. I think it's close to 13 billion light years away in the universe. It's only 13.7 billion years old.

This is one of the very first stars made after the big bang and back then they made much bigger Stars. And they use up their energy much faster, which means they would collapse only in a few million years. And this was the birth of black holes. We're actually seeing black holes being born and during that process particularly stars are rapidly rotating.

If we just happen to be lined up with that rotational axis stuff would squirt out of that rotational axis as the black hole was collapsing and that stuff. Small pieces like the size of the Earth. They're actually moving at point nine nine nine nine the speed of light and then it'll always be one that's moving point nine nine nine eight the speed of light and those two would collide with each [00:18:00] other and release the energy of that Collision as a burst of X-rays and gamma rays, and that's one of the type of objects that we discovered with this.

I would say incredible but it is very credible because if you have the proof and you're talking about the events like this happening not long after the beginning of the universe 13.7 billion light years away 13.7 billion years ago and still powerful enough. Once they reach us to disturb our atmosphere.

Well, the ones that disturb our atmosphere are a different process that occur in our galaxy. Okay, and they we think are neutron stars and neutron size as probably most of your listeners know very small compact stars, but they also have. Across I mean their surface is actually hard and you can have starquakes.

So we're seeing the effect of a starquake where the neutron star surface fractured that jiggled the magnetic field, [00:19:00] but the energy stored in TriStar as magnetic field is huge and that energy is released and that's what we're being hit. They look their next Nextdoor the ones that disturb our ass here.

I just. 10,000 light years away. That's all yeah nothing but boy do they make big pulses our detector now farther away lucky for us our these colliding neutron stars and colliding black holes and you drew a great parallel. You said? Yes, we've been able to detect some of these optically now, Are we also now combining this with the new field of gravitational astronomy ligo?

Yes. Yes long time ago. It was figured out that there's probably two types of these very far away gamma-ray burst one the spiky type and that's the collapse of black hole into a black hole and then there's these narrow very narrow. Sometimes lasting only a hundredth of a. And very often less than the second by locating where they were occurring in the [00:20:00] galaxies.

We determined that they were probably colliding neutron stars or neutron stars that were in orbit with each other eventually they coalesce and now that same event has been seen as gravitational waves also for decades and decades. I'm longer than that. We never really knew where materials heavier than iron came from where does gold come from in the universe?

Everything up to iron comes from stars that eventually blow up as supernovas, but we never really knew where the heavier ones were and it turns out it's coming from these colliding neutron stars. This is results in some of our satellite that we were able to see that happen and then study the remnants of it and realize that's where these heavy elements are coming from.

You said that this essentially generated the whole new field of high-energy astrophysics. Yeah, and all because we wanted to make sure nobody was cheating on a nuclear treaty. Yes. Yes. That's right. And I would say I would add [00:21:00] to that. The development of that technology I think altered the course of the Cold War and that's often forgotten.

I think we really did change history. I think of this in terms of three October's October 1961 the Soviets conduct the largest test in human history. This was known as the Tsar Bomba and It produced a yield a nuclear yield of roughly 50 megatons. Now that's very roughly 3,500 times as powerful as little boy.

The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima so that's October 61 October 1962 is the Cuban Missile Crisis. And so the world comes very very close to going to nuclear war. So things are really getting out of hand at this point in time. We couldn't sign a treaty with the Soviets to ramp down tensions because the technology did not exist to enforce it until 1963 when our folks pioneered the development of valus add lights and so in October of 63, I believe is a.

And earlier we signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty [00:22:00] one week after it goes into effect. Our satellites are launched to make sure that everybody's playing by the rules. And after that the era update Aunt kicks in we signed treaty after treaty with the Soviet Union. Of course, the Vietnam war is going on at this point in time, but.

Tensions between the great Powers significantly deescalate and I don't think it's an overstatement to say that Los Alamos technology helped open up that new era in my hold War. That's quite an accomplishment. Let's talk about more benign uses of nuclear power as you would rest on stage Ellen beginning with nuclear Rockets, right you talked about the Rover program and you mentioned it a few minutes ago as well that because these.

Thermonuclear bombs were so huge. We needed really powerful rockets and apparently made a lot of progress. We did make a lot of progress and of course, you know, I know that many folks who are listening on this podcast will know that you know, that's not really a good way to deliver something. But again, this is pioneering [00:23:00] science in the mid-1950s.

The technology was repurposed as part of our response to Sputnik to explore interplanetary space and so. We we the laboratory produced three working nuclear rocket engines. They were prototypes that could have been adapted for flight testing. The reason that they weren't because because of funding at the end of the 1960s there were many other competing projects.

Not a lot of dollars things such as Apollo Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The Vietnam War was going on putting somebody on Mars at the same time that we're trying to still put somebody on the moon just seemed like something that we could cut. Were allowed to continue with our research at least and out of that research.

The first working nuclear rocket engine was called the Phoebus to a it was tested in the summer of 1968. And it was the most powerful reactor of any type ever developed you made a comparison to one that most of us have heard of right so Three Mile Island. And so again, the [00:24:00] viewer are the listeners and the audience they will appreciate the significant difference between.

Producing nuclear energy versus propulsion so they're designed for completely different things but Three Mile Island still producing power today and I believe that Three Mile Island produces something like 800 to 850 megawatts of power. Now again completely different purpose for propulsion here, but the Phoebus to a produced 4080 megawatts of solder for gigawatts more than the 515 X is power very significant, right much smaller, but.

And actually that's the other remarkable thing is when you're thinking about that kind of power. This was not spread out over acres and Acres. It was in a rocket Engine That Could you could probably put a couple of them in the back of an 18-wheeler. Trailer so and very compact the thing that occurred to me as you were talking about this because I think I'm Kurt something years ago about Rover but the program that I've heard more about for development of nuclear [00:25:00] rocket was known as nerva any RV a and I don't remember what the acronym stood for was that right was that also at Los Alamos, or was that somebody else's work?

So that that was in Los Alamos in the terminology as I understand it and I know that. Probably get some corrections and I do invite Corrections. By the way, the number program. It was nuclear engine. You've got it looked it up before that's that's right. But anyway, it was kind of the actual craft that the that the engine would be mated with and so we weren't the only ones doing nuclear rocket engines.

There are also companies like Rocketdyne. I think Lockheed may have had something. May have been trying to develop these as well. But the idea was I think that the Prototype the again the engine made it with the craft for flight testing was the nuclear engine and I should I don't know when I can come up with it.

I'll go right to the left Los Alamos. We just do acronyms. I mean that's so that's what we're used to that from that reporting on aspirin. So [00:26:00] you had the three of these were developed and. They got pretty far and got shell but it's only very recently that we have started to hear again from NASA about using nuclear propulsion, which clearly makes a lot of people nervous because it does mean getting a reactor.

Maybe it doesn't you don't use it to get. Off of Earth, but you right now activated in space. You still have to get fissionable material into space. Yes, but the potential is tremendous if you want to get to places like Mars right in less than the what 10 months or so that it takes with chemicals hopefully far less and that's the idea behind the nuclear rocket and.

A lot of good stories, but that would that would be how it would happen. You would put the nuclear rocket engine in space using chemical rockets. And then from there you would go to wherever you want to go. But you know the trip to Mars, I don't know and if you how long's that going to take with chemical, well, it takes a good 10 months and months with a nuclear rocket though.

[00:27:00] You're looking at maybe a third of the amount of time approximately it's estimated, which is very good and to be able to give back it's much more, you know, the specific impulse is just so much more. Contain anything else that you can Pacifica balls being the measure that most scientists and Engineers use for how much if you get from a rocket, that's right.

And so, you know to go to Mars any Mission to Mars involving people is going to involve nuclear energy. In various forms, it could take the form of propulsion. It could take the form of small reactors for producing electricity to do things like produce oxygen and water and things like that. And you must have known that was where I wanted to go next because there are these wonderful artists renderings coming out of NASA, but now I suspect with the help of you guys at Los Alamos.

Yes that show these reactors. On the surface of Mars with these big radiator panels right generating the power that's that astronauts would need while they're spending time on the red planet, right? [00:28:00] There's a you know, the laboratory has a web page. We have a lot of videos that we produce from time to time.

There's a two or three minute video on this. It's called a killer power reactor already successfully tested. So it's not this type of thing is not. An artist rendering and so the killer power reactor reactor from 1 to 10 kilowatts and people might think well that doesn't sound all that impressive.

I mean, it's not a 4080 megawatt rocket engine right. But again, if you want to continue breathing on Mars and you wouldn't drink water and things like that, this is perfect because you know 10 kilowatts that would be plenty for powering medium larger sized house or something like that and if you can get several of these together.

You could power a community. Yeah, and so it really does ITS Technologies nuclear technologies like this that actually make this more feasible when people say, oh we should go to Mars. Well, that's not easy and you're going to need this type of Technology. If you're even going to have a hope of doing something like edit.

My understand is that the long pole and [00:29:00] trying to go to Mars is that long flight because of the exposure to the astronauts of radiation. You can't predict the sun far enough ahead of time to know. Flares that might be and the effects of microgravity right and on our astronauts are mostly in low earth orbit where they're protected by our magnetic field.

So you really need the nuclear power to be able to get over there as fast as possible, you know back during the nuclear rocket program. We did a lot of experiments that couldn't be replicated anymore and one of them to your point earlier. It was called kiwi T&T and so the first generation Rover nuclear rockets work.

Kiwis, why kiwi is a flightless bird? So these were never intended to fly. They were just science experiments. And so at the end of the Kiwi series before they moved over to Phoebus which we talked about before these could have been adapted for prototypes. The last kiwi experiment was called kiwi T and T transient nuclear test.

So what happens if a reactor blows up it's going to cause a problem, right? So they took one to Nevada and [00:30:00] blew it up. And studied it and so they did look at that. And again, we would not do anything like that today we couldn't but we have the data from things like that and other experiments as well.

And so, you know when NASA for instrument for instance says, you know, wow, you know, it would be cool if we had a nuclear rocket. Well, you know just taking a reactor and just firing it up in the atmosphere. Could be really challenging. Well, we've done that and we've done lots of work in there a lot of records and drawings and different things like that and it is kind of fun to watch the video of kiwi T and T on top of that and they're going to be a lot of people listening to this all of whom are space fans who are going to say, thank you very much.

We don't want nukes in space whether their propulsion or bombs right very understandable. Wasn't there a successful test on a smaller scale recently of what could eventually be the killer power generator? Yes. Yes. Yes, and that's I think just a little bit more than a year old. Yeah [00:31:00] so sounds right.

You know, I think again if you're looking within the confines of nature going to somewhere like Mars. You've got to look at this type of technology. I just don't think it's fees. I mean even with the technology we're talking about nuclear technology. It's monumentally difficult, but without it, you know, especially on the surface.

I mean you might be able to do something about getting there fast or I mean actually the selectivity been decreasing your from the solar Cycles have been getting weaker and weaker. But once you get there you you need power you just need power and you can't get it from Seoul. Speaking of power for decades now we've seen rtgs radioisotope thermal generators, which I guess we again have Los Alamos to think in large part for that every single one was built at Los Alamos and they just work off heat.

Yeah that you just have a ball of atonium and it is actually just warm [00:32:00] so it's not a reactor. Yeah how to rock right? All you have to do is just encapsulate it very very well, and it's. Seems to be quite safe and no moving parts, right? It says no moving Parts, which is wonderful and space as a person who builds satellites that's wonderful and we know they work they've worked for as I said decades decades and the example that was given by one of your colleagues, of course.

You must be very proud to know that the two Voyager spacecraft going on 42 years are still returning science. Still talking to us from outside the solar system now thanks to rtgs. Yes, we are very proud of that. Right? It's space science, you know people I think when they hear Los Alamos if they're familiar with us, they probably think of the Manhattan Project first and understandably.

So but we do all of these other things as well and they're very proud to have that as part of our heritage and to your question while ago there's a lot of fission and fusion happening in space [00:33:00] already. It's so introducing a little bit more to help unlock our understanding of the universe. I don't think it's a bad idea and we make pretty good reliable stuff my colleague case you dryer who's our chief advocate.

He would want me to talk about one other thing related to rtgs. And that was that for quite a while the special version of plutonium, plutonium-238. Not as toxic as the stuff that goes into bombs was not being made and we were part of the effort to see the restoration of the process of making plutonium 238, which is now as.

Stand it under way. So it's available for rtgs. I've got actually not sure what else it's used for. That's a pretty worthy cause and yeah, I mean the information that we have coming back, you know, we talked during the presentation at least Cassini was mentioned really cool Mission and and so many others, you know, the 230 Ed was talking about.

Well, you got to [00:34:00] have power from somewhere and we've been in the plutonium handling business for a long time at Los Alamos. We have expertise in it and to be able to use it for this purpose pretty pretty amazing. We could keep going for a long time because you folks at the lab have a long history of innovation in space and elsewhere.

Let me close with this. There was a question at the end there which you know, we get all the time at the society we cover on the show and that's human versus. Robotic exploration now our position is. These are going to happen together hand in hand. One of your colleagues said he doesn't see the point of humans being and in space anymore.

It's too tough to tip support us fragile, you know biological units, there's because it's tough as the reason why we do it and that you can give the more accurate quote. Pro from John Kennedy Jack Kennedy, but that's exactly yes. Yes our friend more report on grants. He's not here to defend himself.

And so you get to hear [00:35:00] the other side of the coin and and that's right. So Ed mentioned President Kennedy and everybody will remember when President Kennedy's call to put somebody on the Moon by the end of the decade along with that. He answered this very question. He said, you know, why do we climb the highest mountain?

Why did we fly across the Atlantic you. With the initial Point nobody thinks anything of that now but you think of Charles Lindbergh so long ago and he said, you know, we don't do these things because we they're easy we do them because they're hard we're explorers. That is the thing if we take that out of the equation.

Well, what's the point? What's the point of understanding How the Universe works or anything else? It's what we do as humans and it's exciting and Ed also mentioned a really great example another practical. Aspect of that is this is how we Inspire the Next Generation. So, you know, yes, that's it.

And that you said you spent a lot of time at elementary schools. Yes. Oh, yes. Yeah and they're excited about this. So the only people have an [00:36:00] argument that when the men are involved. We have manned spaceflight usually can't really do very good signs from those. I mean, I'm actually admit to that but we do it because of the inspiration and because it's hard, I'm not even sure we'd argue that we do because of the spin-offs a lot of those spin-offs probably happened.

Anyways, they've happened faster, but you know, it's that inspiration to the Next Generation. Is the reason why we do it and one more thing was an example that you gave toward the end there that humans are resourceful and they figure stuff out give that tell ya that success. I had a mission on STS 39 space shuttle and space shuttle.

Unfortunately, the duplicate tape recorders both failed in the same way adding to the argument whether you have redundant systems duplicates or not and eventually through tremendous. Can the ground but also by worked for the astronauts they were able to go in find a cable? You know scrape insulation off at [00:37:00] twist wires together and get and pipe it into another downlink and get us our data and some otherwise the mission would have been a hundred percent failure.

Maybe someday robots will be smart enough to be now resourceful, but it's going to I don't know. I haven't I'm not sure that I I contend. No, I don't think that would be that smart Alan don't go back to you because you get to watch in fact, it's your job to keep track of all this stuff and look back over the history of the lab, right?

You started by talking about how fortunate you are I agree so do I win the contest without its it well you know the thing is hopefully our enthusiasm is a reflection of what it's like to work at the laboratory you know we have I think these days over 12,000 people there from all over the world it's starting again in our earliest days we had people from all over the world back then.

Who came together during the Manhattan Project That Remains the case today, so you can meet people with all kinds of different perspectives who [00:38:00] are doing science that you might not have even known about even working here because it's such a large place. We have incredible facilities. And yeah, it's I mean to be a historian.

I'm never going to run out of material. We're still making it every day. So and we have up to 2,000 students a year here. That's that's right. And I believe it's the largest collection of students in the United States outside of a university. You talking about graduate students Logan High School from undergraduate graduate postdocs.

I came there as a student actually. Yes and the program and I've had such incredible students. I mean, that's actually the reason why oh, yeah Joey did so much that all the students. I was able to have come from all over the whole world. And are now back in the whole world as professors at universities passing on what they learned here.

I think the inspiration works both ways. We talked about, you know manned missions into space inspiring Young Folks. You know, I'm a student Mentor. I have been for several years the young folks who come [00:39:00] in Inspire us. They rejuvenate us. They bring new ideas from universities to us and we get to share and collaborate and I think that's one of the reasons why we've been so successful at the Laboratories the invigoration that we get from the student population.

Gentlemen, it has been delightful talking with both of you. As I said, there's much more we could talk about going on or has happened at Los Alamos National Laboratory, but I think you've done a good job giving us a little sample. Thanks again. Let's do part two one of these days. Yes. Thank you.

Okay. Thank you. Time for what's up on planetary radio? Bruce Betts is the chief scientist for the planetary Society. He's back to tell us about the night sky, I have good news about the night sky, but you go first what? I'm so curious. I think you're going to lead into it. Regardless. Well see in the night sky, I as I'm sure you knew I was going to start with man.

Neptune is at opposition. No [00:40:00] no talk about Jupiter. All right much easier to see than Neptune Jupiter is quite visible looking like the brightest star like object in the south west in the early evening. Matt two nights ago. I drag the telescope out and got the nicest view of Jupiter. I think I've had in in ages bands clearly visible.

All four Little Moons. It was it was really gorgeous. It was the night that it was very close to the Moon. Well good man. Did you see anything else now? I just looked at Jupiter in the Moon that that's it doesn't take much to keep me happy. Well well over to Jupiter's upper left you could have looked at Saturn.

It has rings. Yeah, I should have much dimmer but still looking like a bright yellowish star Neptune really is at opposition there which doesn't mean you're going to see it with your eyes. But if you want to [00:41:00] pull out a telescope and attempt to see a bluish dot now, it's a good time Rising as things do it opposition around sunset in the East and setting around sunrise and the west and up in the earlier evening.

But again you will need. Telescope or very steady binoculars to check it out. It's an aquarius. You can go find a map online of where it is or use a nap. Alright, we move onto this week in space history. I know you're a big fan of the X-15 matter was 60 years ago 60 years ago. The first powered Flight of the X-15, you know, if only they had continued its development may be gone on to a second generation.

We would have had space traveling flying machines a lot a long time before the space shuttle. I suspect you're right. I'm a big fan. I know you are too I am I am impressive feat of engineering. 22 [00:42:00] years ago Mars Global surveyor and heard Mars orbit will come back to that in a little bit and two years ago Cassini and it its Mission by diving intentionally into the atmosphere of.

Hard to believe that we had that big big night at JPL and Caltech followed what I think two days later by our celebration at Caltech standing room only Standing Ovation for the Cassini team richly deserved indeed. We move on to our and mm space fast. It sounded like it was a rolling. No our. Yes, that's exactly what I intended it to be.

So I mentioned Mars Global surveyor. We've had operating spacecraft in orbit constantly at Mars since 1997 s arrival of Mars Global surveyor 22 straight years humans have been operating spacecrafts in Mars orbit [00:43:00] and doing it all the time. Let's keep it up. Okay, let's do that. I asked you. What does the acronym safer?

Stand for with regards to astronaut related equipment on the International Space Station ad we do man. We got a lot of very clever listener created acronyms that I cannot read on the air, but you know who you are. They were very entertaining. Here's the one that NASA intended us to understand. I it comes from Chris Garland chosen by random dot org this week as our as our winner, I think.

He lives in Phoenix Arizona one of those Southwestern types like our own Jason Davis who you heard earlier today or those guys from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. My special guest Chris says it stands for simplified aid for Eva extra vehicular access our activity rescue. That [00:44:00] is correct. That is safer a small self-contained propulsive backpack.

Wondering spacewalks to be used in case of emergency. Chris congratulations, you are going to get a Priceless planetary radio t-shirt a two hundred point. I telescope dotnet astronomy account and you're a winner of a signed copy of this new book a super cool space facts of fun fact filled space book for kids by my partner in this Bruce Betts the chief scientist of the planetary Society.

I've got it sitting right behind me here. It's a swell book. Yay, we got some other stuff several people including Darren Richie and Paul McEwen and this response from Judy angles Berg, very similar thoughts about safer Judy in New Jersey said we were promised a personal safer for everyone here on Earth.

[00:45:00] Where's my jet pack just in case your your umbilical cord broke off. I guess it does and some way they do that. Usually they use something sharp on dries Espino regular listener for many years in down in Colombia Bogota Colombia. He says I thought Sandra Bullock already confirmed that in case of emergency you can use a fire extinguisher.

They all carry those as well clearly. Yeah, those big old Tin Can ones finally this intriguing entry from a bill bill O'Donoghue in Atlanta, Georgia. He says one of my professors in college would refer to this as a second-order acronym because it's an acronym Eva within another acronym safer. He says every time I think of it I try to come up with a third order acronym.

I feel like I know one. But nothing comes to mind. I spent two good old two and a [00:46:00] half minutes trying to think of one bill, but I couldn't come up with one either. Wow now so much is there goes my afternoon? Well, maybe we can get listeners to Stu come up with a good space-related third-order acronym for us.

Give it a shot. Maybe you'll get extra points. But there is an official contest coming up right now. I think I like that one better. Okay. It's up to you. You call the shots. All right, let's do that will craft and real-time the rules so they have to come up with a third order acronym as defined by The Listener who has just mentioned and it has to have to do with space and it can either be something real that you found or something to make us laugh.

How's that sound man? Sounds good to me Bill O'Donoghue. Look what you've done. All right, I'm up for this. I was having trouble thinking of [00:47:00] something good today, but the the what I was going to ask was just boring, so it's so we'll go with some excitement and third-order acronyms. Alright space-related you have until oh, did you tell people how to enter?

I don't think you did yet? Nope. No, I have no idea. I will tell them go to planetary dot org slash radio contest. Did you tell them how long they have met? No, The 18th, you've got until September 18th. That's Wednesday the 18th at 8 a.m. Pacific time and somebody I don't know maybe we'll come up with some additional stuff.

But somebody at least a grand prize winner is going to get a planetary radio t-shirt. And 200 point I telescope dotnet account worldwide nonprofit network of telescopes ever-improving network of telescopes that you can use to look at Jupiter Saturn or stuff down in the southern hemisphere, which is where I telescope is based.

That's it. All right, everybody go out there. Look up the night sky and think [00:48:00] about why our orange cones cones. Why are they come on Shay? Why are they orange think about these things? Thank you and good night. It's so obvious. I'm surprised that a well trained scientist. Like you couldn't drive this.

It's because they look so good on your head. He's Bruce Betts the chief scientist at planetary Society who joins us every week here for what's up planetary radio is produced by the planetary Society in Pasadena, California where we'd love to welcome you as a member. Visit planetary dot org slash membership to learn more and if you're already one of us, thanks, you make our little show possible Mark Hilverda our associate producer Josh Doyle composed our theme which was arranged and performed by Peter Schlosser.

I'm Mat Kaplan Ad Astra [00:49:00] .